Keith Arbour, member of the American Antiquarian Society, was the banquet speaker at the 1986 Bigelow Society reunion, 19 July 1986. He chose for his topic the often-questioned “Oath of a Freeman”.
“Freeman” in colonial days did not have
to do with bondage or servitude, though to be sure, bonded servants were not
eligible. Simply put, a freeman was a full citizen of the colony, with the right
to vote in town meetings. There were requirements, however, just as there are
citizenship and age requirements today.
From the beginning of the establishment of Massachusetts Bay Colony, there were certain steps required. First was the all-important oath of fidelity to the Crown, such as John Biglow took in 1652. The person taking this oath was to be 21 years of age or more, certainly a male, and not an indentured servant or bonded man. The next requirements were those of property ownership and church membership, extremely to the theocratical provinces of New England. Lastly, there was the freeman’s oath.
Some colonists, of course, were not particularly religious or followed religious practices frowned upon.
We know that Baptists, Quakers, and other non-conformists were harassed and not accepted. John Biglow’s father-in-law, John Warren, had his home searched to see if he were harboring members of those congregations, and though a freeman as early as 1631, by 1659 was fined for non-attendance of church.
In 1690 the matter of membership in the established Puritan church was relaxed, and in Watertown alone, a long list of men were then sworn in as freemen. Among them were John and Samuel Biglow.
Below is the form of oath taken by those two men in 1690
“Whereas I, [A.B.] being an inhabitant of the
Jurisdiction of the Massachusetts, and now to be made free, Do hereby acknowledge
my selfe to be subject to the Government thereof (Considering how I stand obliged
to the Kings Majesty, his Heires and Successors, by our Charter and the Government
established thereby Do Swear accordingly, by the Great and Dreadfull Name of
the Ever-Living GOD, that I will bear Faith and true Alegiance to our Soveraigne
Lord the King, his heires and Successors,) and that I will be true and Faithfull
to the same, and will accordingly yeild Assistance and Support “hereunto
with my person and estate, as in equity I am bound; And will also truely endeavour
to maintain and preserve all the Liberties and priviledges thereof, submitting
my selfe to the wolesome Laws made and established by the same. “And farther
that I will not Plot nor Practice any Evill against it, or consent to any that
shall do so, but will timely discover and reveal the same to Lawfull Authority
now here established, for the speedy prevention thereof. “Moreover I do
solemnly bind my selfe in the sight of God, that when I shall be called to give
my Voyce touching any such matter of this State wherein Freemen are to deal,
I will give my Vote and Suffrage as I shall in mine own Conscience judge best
to conduce and tend to the Public Weale of the body, without respect of persons
or favour of any man. So help me God in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This form of the oath was in use for many years, replacing a slightly shorter oath in use from 1631 to 1665. During the American Revolution, a form was adapted to the new independent government, and many colonists used this new form to avow their allegiance to the rebel government. Briefly, the freeman’s oath changed as times changed, and the last remnant hangs on in the oath of Allegiance taken by new citizens of this country.
From: Vol. 15, No. 4 Force (The Bigelow Society Quarterly) October 1986 Page 72